• U.S.

Less Is More: Keeping It Simple

4 minute read
Tim Padgett/Leesburg

The Rev. John Ohmer knew the parents in his congregation wanted help weaning themselves from the habit of overindulging their children. But as a father of three who has to ration Nintendo in his own home, Ohmer, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Leesburg, Va., also knew it wasn’t as simple as just telling families to buy less. So he revved up what he calls an “underground Christian resistance movement” for parents, offering parish workshops that urged them to make an inventory of their lives and holidays and then imagine the ideal version. Their dreams, it turned out, entailed a lot less Visa debt and a lot more intangible stuff. What they needed to do, he advised, was “build a bridge between the two.”

That effort has become a bigger parish hit than bingo. St. James parents like James and Colleen Wheaton now set limits on the number and prices of Christmas gifts for their kids, whether from relatives or from Santa. They use the savings to buy construction material to make more of their own family decorations–together. Ohmer’s workshop, says Colleen, “was the first place we could finally legitimize our frustrations.”

Across the country, groups with Ohmer’s spirit are leading a middle-class exodus out of the 90210 lifestyle. For example, more than 100 U.S. cities today host “simplicity circles” affiliated with the Cornell University-created Seeds of Simplicity program based in Los Angeles. Then there is the Center for a New American Dream, a Takoma Park, Md., group whose motto is “More fun, less stuff!” Says director Betsy Taylor: “This isn’t just about unspoiling kids. It’s about reclaiming our kids from a toxic commercial culture that has spun out of control.”

At St. James last month, parishioner Mary Pellicano talked about the excesses of a “Dragontails” birthday party she and her husband George recently gave for their son Kieran, 4. “All the paraphernalia, the goody bags–it was over the top,” Mary recalled. “Then Kieran hinted he’d have been just as happy playing hide-and-seek with a few friends before the cake. I realized I wasn’t doing this for him–I was doing it for me! It was just another way of trying to keep up with the new SUV next door.”

The night before, a simplicity circle in Silver Spring, Md., brainstormed solutions to the birthday angst. Jennifer Shields, a mother of children ages 3 and 4, said she explicitly asks on party invitations that guests give only art supplies–and she keeps her kids’ gift expectations low by making her home TV-free during the day. Shields got applause–but also sparked debate. “We have to raise our kids to confront commercial realities,” said Len Ingber. “We’re not Amish.”

There was consensus, however, over the Seeds of Simplicity proposal to resurrect household chores. “My kids have friends who have never had to help empty a dishwasher,” said Erin Fulham. “Once a week now, my 11-year-old makes dinner, and my eight-year-old does the laundry.”

Seeds of Simplicity’s other core recommendations include making only planned trips to the mall–so kids view shopping as a more scheduled, less impulsive exercise–and consulting kids about any simplification decisions. Otherwise, says Seeds director Carol Holst, “you’ll just have more screaming tantrums in the Toys ‘R’ Us cash-register line.”

New American Dream suggests teaching kids money management. Karen Bakuzonis in Gainesville, Fla., was working long hours to pay for extras like a lawn service–though she and her husband have two strapping sons. She has stopped working and has made her boys earn an allowance by doing chores–including the mowing. These days they have to pony up for goodies like Air Jordan sneakers. Bakuzonis says they now “realize how much life costs–and that it’s a bit ridiculous to have a limousine take you and your date to a junior high dance,” as some classmates recently did.

If that kind of talk sounds subversive, it’s meant to: the savvy of the antispoiling movement is its revival of old counterculture instincts–which may be the best way to get the attention of baby-boomer parents.

–By Tim Padgett/Leesburg

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